Thursday, February 28, 2019

A New "Haunting" of an Old House

Of all the different adaptations of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House," the new Netflix miniseries is the most unlike the original work. A few of the character names are the same, the house is more or less unchanged, and there are Easter Eggs for fans, but the story is largely original.

Created by dependable horror director Mike Flanagan, the story unfolds in two different time periods simultaneously. Hill House is acquired by the Crain family in the 1980s, who plan to renovate and flip it for a profit. We follow them during their ill-fated initial stay, and then thirty years later in the present day, when the five Crain children have grown up. This allows the viewer to see how the events of the past are still affecting each member of the family. Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas in the past, and Timothy Hutton in the present) and his wife Olivia (Carla Gugino) are parents to Steven (Paxton Singleton/Michael Huisman), Shirley (Lulu Wilson/Elizabeth Reaser), Theodora (McKenna Grace/Kate Siegel), and the twins, Luke (Julian Hilliard/Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Violet McGraw/Victoria Pedretti), who are six-year-olds at the beginning the series.

The ten episode series makes good use of the format, spending the first five episodes exploring the lives and relationships of each of the five Crain children in depth. Bouncing back and forth in the timeline, the series builds to the fateful night when the Crains were first forced to flee Hill House after escalating supernatural encounters, and their eventual return to the mansion decades later for a final confrontation. However, "Hill House" is at its best in those first five episodes, when it's functioning more like an anthology of intimate personal portraits. The Crains are far more compelling when they're individually struggling with various personal horrors, like mental illness and drug addiction, than they are when they're forced to reunite and hash out all the family drama in more melodramatic fashion.

The show's production is very strong, and there are some lovely, creepy thrills and jolting scares to be had from seeing how the various ghosts and ghouls of Hill House manifest. This is a very dark show from a visual standpoint, with a lot of characters wandering around nocturnal nightmare worlds. The gloomy atmosphere is terrific. The director also employs a lot of neat little tricks, like having hidden figures and faces occasionally appear in the frame that are never remarked on. Easily the best aspect of the show is the editing, which gets us into the headspace of each character by juxtaposing their past and present selves, often with clever match cuts. Swapped POVs and recontextualization of various scenes are also handled very well throughout.

Where the show is weaker is on the acting side. A couple of the performances are noticeably overwrought, and it's clear that some actors were cast for looks over ability. This isn't a major sin for horror media, but it does end up undercutting some of the more delicate bits of storytelling. It also doesn't help that the show is very overwritten at times, especially in the back half. Monologues are so pervasive, it starts feeling a little ridiculous, and nobody comes off well when the Crains start fighting among themselves. Michael Huisman has proven a perfectly capable actor on other programs, but he isn't able to salvage much of the unsympathetic Steven, who is unfortunately positioned as our primary lead.

On the other hand, I like the way that the various reveals are handled, and the treatment of Hill House's many ghosts. Though Hill House clearly has an eventful history, we don't spend much time digging through it (at least not this season). The focus of the show remains firmly with the Crains, to its benefit, and a lot is left unexplained for the viewer to speculate about. And as much as this is a horror series, it's just as much a psychological thriller and family drama. And seeing how the horror is rooted in so many everyday woes and fears really helps to give it more impact. The particulars of how the various supernatural struggles play out is fairly rote, but it's the quieter, more ordinary moments that end up delivering more memorable nightmare fuel.


Monday, February 25, 2019

Oscar Aftermath 2019

There was so much Oscar drama this year that I'm honestly relieved that the big night went off as well as it did.  First there was the "Most Popular Film" debacle last summer, then Kevin Hart being hired to host and then quitting after an eruption of Twitter controversy.  Then came the plan to hand out four of the craft awards during commercial breaks, and only perform two of the Best Song nominees. Both decisions were also rightfully quashed.  Academy President John Bailey seemed to be weathering a new storm of outrage every week, and we haven't even gotten to the nominees yet.

All of these changes were pushed as a result of the Academy Awards ceremony hitting a ratings low last year.  This isn't surprising considering that all broadcast television ratings have been sliding, but the Academy was determined to mitigate the damage and save their biggest income stream.  The length of the ceremony was the major target, and all the proposed trims and exclusions were intended to get the telecast down to three hours. Not having a host turned out to be a blessing in disguise, removing the monologue and some of the other usual bits.  While it still ended up running well over three hours, this year's telecast was a full half hour shorter than last year's, and the shortest since 2012.
The ratings also recovered, around ten percent.  There were some good headliners this year, including a Queen performance at the opening and the widely promoted live duet between Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.  I don't watch much live television anymore, but the ads were still inescapable. While there was no host, the Academy packed the presenters roster with stars, including having Tina Fey,Amy Pohler, and Maya Rudolph start things off with a mini-monologue and having Julia Roberts announce the Best Picture winner.  We got a little of everybody, and it felt just about right. Some may also point to the nominees being more high profile as having an effect. "Black Panther," "Bohemian Rhapsody," and "A Star is Born" were all bona fide hits. Whether they deserved their Best Picture nominations was another matter.

So, let's get to the awards.  "Green Book," by all estimations, was a very safe choice that has made several people very upset, including Spike Lee.  But honestly, it could have been worse. "Bohemian Rhapsody" could have won, and after picking up four statuettes over the course of the evening, it was looking like it might pull off an upset.  "Black Panther" could have won, and upset the anti-superhero, anti-populist, and anti-Disney crowds. "Vice" could have won and offended anyone with a modicum of taste. "Green Book" was a miserably outdated bit of pandering to the Academy electorate, but also a pretty well made movie with some good performances.

The media narrative this morning is that Olivia Colman's win is a big upset, but she was no more unlikely a winner than Rami Malek, considering all the critical support.  Most of the major categories went to the expected winners, though there's been some hand-wringing about "Bohemian Rhapsody" getting the editing trophy for some dodgy work.  Personally, the most satisfying wins of the night for me were Spike Lee celebrating his Adapted Screenplay triumph and "Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse" finally breaking the Disney/PIXAR streak.

And as I'm reminded year after year, the smaller categories are often the source of some of the best surprises.  The Live Action Documentary Short winners championing their piece about menstruation was a highlight. I loved seeing Domee Shi win for Best Animated Short.  "Black Panther" winning Best Score, and Ludwig Goransson talking about being Ryan Coogler's college roommate was a delight. More minorities and more women won this year, and in categories that they traditionally didn't.    

Of course there were also some disappointments.  "The Favourite" and "Roma" didn't get nearly enough love in the end.  Gary Kurtz got left out of the "In Memoriam" segment. I feel bad for Spike Lee, even though he did finally win.  I'm relieved that the Oscars seem to have found their footing in the end though, and we can all regroup and come back for another round of this nonsense next year.  

Oh, and "Annihilation" didn't get nominated for anything, but apparently they decided to hold the ceremony in the Shimmer.    

Saturday, February 23, 2019

"The Venture Bros." Year Seven (or Fourteen)

Spoilers ahead.

It feels like "The Venture Bros." may soon be coming to a close, if anything can be "soon" for a show that only drops a new season every two to three years. Not only was there major plot progression this season, but the show finally offered some definitive answers to several longstanding mysteries. It also did something that I've never seen it do - after years of the Ventures and friends struggling with failure and disappointment, it let the major characters score some significant personal wins.

The Monarch and Henchman 21, for instance, spent most of the season steadily working his way up through the ranks of the Guild of Calamitous Intent, with plenty of encouragement from Dr. Mrs. The Monarch. Doc also had what was arguably his finest hour, helping to hammer out a new treaty between the OSI and GCI. He almost invented personal teleportation too. I really thought he would have bankrupted Ventech by now, but the Venture clan is still in New York and doing fine so far. There are plenty of conflicts still in the mix - things may get ugly for Hank and Dean - but I got a nice sense of satisfaction seeing so many things go right for these characters.

They also dove into the mythology of the show in a big way. The first three episodes were actually the repositioned finale of last season, detailing the twisted history of the Blue Morpho and Jonas Sr. Then we spent multiple episodes with the Monarchs seeing the bureaucratic ins and outs of the how the Guild operates, and how they play fast and loose with things like Arching levels. Spending so much time with the various Guild Council members has made me very fond of minor characters like Dr. Z and Red Mantle/Dragoon. Even characters I've been very cool on like Wide Wale and St. Cloud tend to grow on me after they come back around again a few times. St. Cloud becoming Billy and Pete's official Archnemesis, and having to start out as a Level One trainee under the Monarch is priceless.

The series has been going for so long that it's easy to take for granted how good it still is. The production values are fantastic. The writing remains as strong as ever. We've long since moved away from the formula of Doc screwing up an invention, the boys getting up to hijinks, and Brock being violent, but the show is still perfectly capable of doing any of those things, and doing them well. If you've missed Brock carnage, for example, the last episode of the season features plenty, plus another Hank vision quest. I think the show is at its best, however, when it comes to slowly nudging its characters along toward maturity. Dean has been screwed up for a while now, but this year he demonstrates that he's a completely different (and arguably healthier) kind of screwed up than he was three seasons ago.

I also want to point out that the content this year skews more adult than it has in the past, particularly an episode that involves an extended reference to the sex cult in "Eye Wide Shut." Possibly because there are several other adult-oriented action shows like "Archer" out there now, it seems like the "Venture" creators are more comfortable letting their characters get more freaky. It's all very much in the usual vein of Doc and Jonas's sexual behavior being an extension of their immaturity and irresponsibility, but the accompanying visuals definitely go farther and leave less to the imagination. Also, the boys are both adults now and being treated as such.

I'd love it if "Venture" could go on indefinitely this way, but one of the reasons why this season was so strong is because it feels like it's progressing toward an endgame, or at least some major changes in the status quo. Two of the central relationships are clearly never going to be the same after the finale. Meanwhile, I love that the show took the time to show the Monarch being supportive of his wife when she needed it, and that Gary is still firmly committed to "Hench 4 Life." The "Venture" universe remains one of my favorites because it's simultaneously so out there, and yet so intimately relatable and capable of genuine emotional moments.

And the pop culture references remain unabashedly nerdy to the extreme. Saprax and Alatheus were real historical Gothic warlords. Because of course they were.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

"Doctor Who" Year Eleven (Or Thirty-Seven)

This was a series of big changes for "Doctor Who."  We have a new Doctor, new companions, new showrunner, and mostly a new crew.  Things got off to a bit of a rocky start, but that's normal for any new era of the show.  I don't feel that we really ever settle into a comfortable groove with a new Doctor until after about a series and a half.  This time was different, though. While I found a lot of the show's elements needed some polish, the Doctor herself was immediately endearing.  Jodie Whittaker has quickly become one of my favorite actors to take on the role of The Doctor.

With showrunner Chris Chibnall at the helm, "Doctor Who" feels less kitschy than in previous seasons.  It's still very funny at times and full of ridiculous genre elements, but the tone is more serious and the characters feel more like real, ordinary people.  The new companions include a retired Caucasian bus driver, Graham (Bradley Walsh), his step-grandson Ryan (Tosin Cole), who is black, and Ryan's friend Yasmin (Mandip Gill), a police officer whose family is Pakistani.  The Doctor/Companion dynamics are very different, and so far the bulk of the character building has gone to the companions. While there are a few references here and there to earlier series of "Doctor Who," almost all of the mythology has been ignored.  There have been no Daleks or Cybermen, no Master, no UNIT, and not more than a mention of Gallifrey.

Frankly, that's a nice change for now.  Some of the one-off adventures are considerably better than others, but they all benefit from being almost entirely self-contained.  There's continuity, but no true multi-parters. The show has also been more ambitious about telling different kinds of stories, many a bit more mature and self-serious.  So far, two of the standout episodes have been historical ones, a visit to Rosa Parks' famous arrest and another to a family spat during the Partition of India. Monsters and aliens are involved in both cases, but the show is also able to tackle racial and political issues a little more in depth.  The fact that the Doctor is a woman is treated matter-of-factly, but it is occasionally an issue in certain situations that has to be worked around.

Sometimes episodes come out too somber or restrained, and the supporting characters are very much a work in progress.  Only Bradley Walsh's Graham is an entirely successful personality at the moment, as he's the only one who's had any kind of emotional arc.  However, Whittaker makes up for any deficiencies. Her performance is such a joy to watch, full of energy and enthusiasm and curiosity. She's obviously taking some cues from David Tennant's Tenth Doctor, but without the egomania or the dark side - at least not yet.  I'd love to see the Thirteenth Doctor interact with a few more pieces of the past, and have to deal with some of the history, but I like that the creators are letting her be the Doctor on her own terms first.

That said, there are some improvements that need to be made.  I hate what they've done with the TARDIS. Ryan and Yasmin need better material.  There haven't been any particularly memorable antagonists. The music is very meh.  And even though I'm fine with the Doctor not relying on the old "Doctor Who" mythology, we could certainly use some new "Doctor Who" mythology to replace it with.  More with the grannies, maybe. My favorite episode in this series has been a comedic one, "Kerblam!" where the Doctor and friends infiltrate a giant, alien parody of an Amazon warehouse, because it was quick-paced and silly.  However, it was a pretty generic story that could have featured any version of the Doctor.

I find myself wishing impatiently for that episode of Thirteen's adventures that defines Thirteen, the way that "Heaven Sent" showcases Twelve and "The Doctor's Wife" finally endeared me to Eleven.  I'm fully onboard with Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, but the series hasn't quite lived up to her yet. However, I am absolutely willing to wait. it's early going yet, and I'm sure that matters will improve as we move into future series.   


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Rank 'Em: the 2019 Best Picture Nominees

There's no way that I'm going to get reviews for all the Best Picture nominees posted before Oscar night, but at least I can get a "Rank 'Em" post out in time.  Here they are, from best to worst, and this was one of those years with such a wide range in quality that I had very little difficulty with the final rankings.

Roma - Alfonso Cuaron's love letter to the Mexico City of his youth and the women in his life is a wonderfully intimate piece of nostalgia.  At the same time, its scope is vast and its ambitions are grand. This is an unlikely frontrunner for Best Picture, largely boosted by Netflix's efforts, but it's one of the most deserving in recent memory.  The filmmaking is head and shoulders above any of the other contenders, featuring Cuaron's own magnificently executed cinematography.

The Favourite - It's delightful to find that Yorgos Lanthimos's style can be applied to a more mainstream, conventional picture without losing very much of its bite.  The lead actresses do a lot of the heavy lifting here, and they are sensational. Olivia Colman's miserable Queen Anne in particular is a treat. Court intrigue has rarely been this bawdy, this absurd, or this much dirty, unwholesome fun.  And yet underneath, there's a deep sadness that grounds the whole film beautifully.

Blackkklansman - One of the most watchable Spike Lee films, because it embraces the structure of a rip-roaring police procedural. Sure, the politics and the social commentary are full-throated Spike Lee, but these elements are deftly woven into an great yarn about a black cop making fools of the KKK.  It doesn't fall into the trap that so many similar films have, making simple monsters of the racists, or underestimating their perniciousness. So when that audacious ending is deployed, it has all the more impact.

A Star is Born - I give Bradley Cooper and company a lot of points for the seemingly effortless way that this film is distinguished from its predecessors.  Despite following the original formula to the letter, it doesn't look or sound remotely similar. Casting Lady Gaga was the best decision they made. However, it's hard to overlook how the second half is significantly weaker than the first, and Bradley Cooper's character takes over a little too much of the narrative.  It's certainly an impressive debut, but there's room for improvement.

Green Book - This is a perfectly competently made period drama about American race relations.  However, the decision to honor "Green Book" over so many better alternatives is more troubling.  I'm glad that the film has brought more attention to "Doc" Shirley, and I'm rooting for Mahershala Ali to take home another statuette, but it's hard to feel much enthusiasm for a picture that feels so safe.  I'm sure everyone involved had the best intentions, but the film can't escape feeling a little tired and decades out of date.

Bohemian Rhapsody - I like the film more than I should because it's such a crowd pleaser, and knows exactly how to use Queen's songs for maximum audience enjoyment.  Rami Malek shines, despite the distracting dentures. The Live Aid recreation is grand. And as musical biopics go, the rest is very entertaining. It is also, alas, a rather messy, slapdash sort of amalgam of a lot of stories told out of order, with little resemblance to reality.  Not as bad as it could have been by a long shot, but this wasn't the Freddie Mercury film many were hoping for.

Black Panther - I understand all the forces that converged to make this nomination happen, but it still feels strange.  I love genre cinema as much as anyone, but there's no getting around that "Black Panther" is at its core a pretty typical Marvel superhero film.  It's no doubt a very important superhero film because of its unprecedented cultural impact, but the action and effects work are mediocre, and the plotting is generic stuff.  I want it to win some of the crafts awards, because it deserves them, but I have trouble thinking of this as a serious pick.

Vice - And finally, I can't wrap my mind around why this is here.  Every few years we have another film with Christian Bale and Amy Adams in it, with a passel of nominations, that I completely fail to connect with.  "Vice" is dull and hamhanded and looking to pick a fight half of the time. The other half tries to be fair and balanced and takes a few feeble stabs at humanizing Dick Cheney.  The editing is a mess, the attitude is off-putting, Cheney is a snooze, and I'm honestly shocked that Adam McKay is up for Best Director.


Sunday, February 17, 2019

Trailers! Trailers! Early 2019 Edition

I'd normally wait until a little later in the year for a trailer post, especially as we're only starting to see some of the smaller summer pics premiere trailers now.  However, there have been a couple of interesting ones that have popped up, and I'm also going to take this as an opportunity to discuss some trends and a few titles that may be overlooked in the months ahead.  

Spider-Man: Far From Home  - Tom Holland is looking a lot less puppyish and more settled into the superhero role.  I like that this run of Spidey movies is committed to doing its own thing apart from its predecessors, putting Happy Hogan in the mix and not keeping Aunt May in the dark.  There's not much to say about Jake Gyllenhaal's Mysterio yet, though I remain optimistic. Gyllenhaal is overdue to play a supervillain. And, of course, there are no hints about "Endgame."  I wish Sony had held back on this trailer until after the big reveal, but that would've been logistically impossible, of course.

Yesterday - I've been hearing about this project for a while, as the Danny Boyle/Richard Curtis musical comedy collaboration, and mentally filed it away as another one of those quaint little rom-coms about struggling mucisians trying to make it big.  It wasn't until I saw the excellent trailer that I realized what the premise actually is - and it's irresistable. I love that the star is a mostly unknown Indian British actor, Himesh Patel. I love that after years and years of notoriously high licensing fees, the whole Beatles catalogue is apparently fair game for this project.  Between this an "Rocketman," it's going to be a very classic rock summer.

Frozen 2 - This early trailer doesn't tell us much, but it looks like the tone is going to be darker and more serious.  Elsa's putting her powers up against an ocean, Anna has a new hairstyle and is throwing knives - it's all very tense and mysterious.  Compare to the teaser trailer for the original "Frozen," which was just Sven and Olaf goofing around on a frozen pond. Still, keep in mind that the film will definitely still be a musical and is still going to be aimed at a target audience of little princess-loving girls, so "Frozen 2" is likely to turn out much lighter than this preview is hinting - and I expect that future marketing materials will reflect that.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw  - Vin who?  Even without the ties to "The Fast & The Furious" franchise, I'd totally be onboard for this.  The Rock and Jason Statham teaming up in an action comedy with Idris Elba as the bad guy and Vanessa Kirby in the mix?  Sold. I hope they keep the fourth wall breaking for the actual film, but that may be too much to ask. The release date isn't until early August, but I'm betting that this is going to do "Fast & Furious" level business and give all the superheroes a good fight for the box office crown this summer.    

Child's Play  - Chucky's back!  And it looks like he's gotten a few upgrades thanks to modern day technology.  The teaser doesn't ever actually let us see Chucky directly, though, and I'm curious as to whether he'll look much different than the 1980s original.  We already know that Brad Dourif won't be back to voice him. He will, however, be voicing Chucky in the planned television series continuation of the original run of "Child's Play" movies, which only had its most recent sequel two years ago.  Why is this franchise being rebooted again?

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum  - I wasn't a big fan of the second John Wick movie, but I thought that it set up a fabulous scenario for the third.  John Wick fighting his way out of New York City with a contract on his head and a new dog? It's also nice to see Halle Berry and Mark Dacascos again - and I hope that Halle Berry gets to do more here than she did in "Kingsman."  

Birds of Prey  and Untitled Ghostbusters Project  - Finally, we have the very interesting case of two teasers being dropped for films that aren't coming out until 2020.  These don't have a frame of film that's actually going to be in the finished product either. "Ghostbusters" hasn't ever started filming.  These are essentially proof of concept videos being released to kickstart some hype and awareness among franchise fans. I thought that super-early previews like this had fallen out of favor, but here we are.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Our Latest "Star is Born"

Bradley Cooper has pulled off something special with his directing debut, the latest remake of the 1937 showbiz drama, "A Star is Born."  He not only plays the male lead, country music singer-songwriter Jackson Maine, but sings all his own songs with credible rock star charisma and skill.  Multiple concert sequences reveal that Cooper has an excellent voice and performance chops. However, "A Star is Born" isn't about Jackson Maine's stage triumphs, but his relationship with a rising ingenue and his painful downfall.

Once again, the aging, alcoholic star on a downward trajectory crosses paths with a burgeoning talent on the verge of fame and success.  This time the story is set in the music world, and the female lead, Ally, is played by Lady Gaga. There are a few modern day signifiers like Ally and Jackson having their first meeting during a drag queen show, and Ally's career taking off due to a viral video, but otherwise it's the same old story.  Ally and Jackson fall in love and make beautiful music together before Jackson's alcoholism and inner demons start to drag them both down. I've only seen one of the previous versions of "A Star is Born," the 1954 musical directed by George Cukor, and starring Judy Garland and James Mason. I can happily report that Cooper's version is up to snuff both musically and dramatically.  

Of course, he had a lot of help.  As impressive as Cooper sounds, he's no match for the towering vocal force that is Lady Gaga, who proves to be just as deft a dramatic actress as she is a singer.  The real showstopper numbers on the soundtrack all belong to her. Sam Elliott and Andrew Dice Clay turn in great supporting work, playing Jackson's long-suffering brother and Ally's supportive father, respectively.  Matthew Libatique is also a key player here, with his cinematography keeping the love story very intimate, the concert sequences immersive, and the spotlight alternately thrilling or excruciating as needed. The soundtrack credits are full of eye-catching names, including Lukas Nelson, Mark Ronson, and a little Edith Piaf too.

The key here is that the romance between Jackson and Ally feels so genuine, built on a lot of smaller personal interactions that run the gamut from adorable to hurtful.  Moreover, these are intelligent, grounded characters, who are very appealing. Ally has already had skirmishes with the recording industry and doesn't need Jackson to tell her that she's talented.  Jackson has the best of intentions, and is wonderfully generous, but can't control his self-destructive habits. Together, they have real chemistry as both lovers and collaborators. Their big duet, "Shallow," is the highlight of the film, and not for the actual song.  Rather, it's Ally slowly but surely working up the courage to approach the microphone that is the real delight.

The second half of the film is rockier than the first, as the story shifts to focus more on Jackson's descent, and we lose the sense of joyous discovery that propels the romance.  Cooper's performance is fine, but the narrative here is messier and some of his choices get a little self-indulgent. However, as a film nerd, I can't be too upset about the loving references to the previous versions of "A Star is Born" or Cooper taking the time to put his own stamp on a few iconic lines and scenes.  Dave Chappelle dropping in for a few scenes and disappearing again just as quickly is a little annoying, but who am I to complain about getting more Dave Chappelle?

Everyone's sick of remakes, but "A Star is Born" has proven to be such a timeless story, this version feels overdue.  I'm always going to prefer the Judy Garland one because I love Judy Garland and George Gershwin's songs, but the 2018 "A Star is Born" is exactly what it should be, and far better than I expected.  I'm a little sad that the version that Clint Eastwood was planning with Beyonce never panned out, but I don't think Eastwood could have made a version as personal or as passionate as this. I still have my quibbles about Bradley Cooper, but I look forward to whatever he wants to make next.      


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Beauty of "Buster Scruggs"

I love a good Coen brothers comedy, and "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" offers some pleasures that only the Coens can provide.  Their newest film is an anthology of six Western shorts, charmingly presented with the framing device of a book titled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier.  A hand turns pages between each story, and color plate illustrations with brief captions serve as previews of what's in store for the viewer.  

The six shorts vary widely in content and length, but all depict a highly stylized vision of the Old West, contain darkly humorous elements, and examine the characters' attitudes about death.  "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" features a singing cowboy and gunfighter, Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson). "Near Algodones" involves a bank robber (James Franco) with peculiar luck. "Meal Ticket" follows an impresario (Liam Neeson) and a limbless orator (Harry Melling) struggling through hard times.  "All Gold Canyon" pits a prospector (Tom Waits) against the elements. "The Gal Who Got Rattled" is a love story about two members of a wagon train, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). Finally, "The Mortal Remains" looks in on a collection of characters about a stagecoach, discussing the hereafter.

What struck me immediately about "Buster Scruggs" was how unexpectedly violent it was, despite being shot and styled like one of the sunny old singing cowboy pictures of the 1930s, with Scruggs laying on the folksy patois awfully thick.  My second thought was that at least three of the six shorts were over far too quickly. Barely fifteen minutes after we are introduced to Scruggs and his guitar, they are gone. "Near Algodones" and "The Mortal Remains" feel like brief fragments of longer tales that weren't fully developed.  The two most substantial installments, "All Gold Canyon" and"The Gal Who Got Rattled," are based on existing stories written by Jack London and Stewart Edward White respectively, and are easily the highlights of the film.

Most of the shorts are morality tales to some extent, ruminating on cruel fate and even crueler human nature.  The violence here is not the violence of a Quentin Tarantino picture, to be enjoyed for its own sake, but a means to dig into deeper questions about our relationship to death.  Though the characters and situations of each short are different, they're tonally similar. None really end happily, even when the protagonists triumph. Instead, all the stories evoke an existential melancholy, very much in same vein as other Coens projects like "No Country For Old Men" and their "True Grit" remake.  The Wild West is beautiful, but also merciless. Death in the form of Comanche raids, feckless bandits, or simple starvation wait around every corner.

As the Coens are wont to do, the film is full of little tributes and allusions to other western genre media, some cinematic and some literary.  We see all the old staples, from saloons and gunfighters to prospectors and pioneers on the prairies. Some shorts offer commentary on common tropes, most notably Buster Scruggs himself, a pristine Hollywood cowboy in a graphically violent world.  Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel does fantastic work, painting picture-perfect views of the Old West and its inhabitants. "All Gold Canyon" benefits the most from this, with its Eden-like setting and largely dialogue-free storytelling. What dialogue there is, is polished and poetic, full of little witticisms, and Carter Burwell's score is similarly old fashioned and bucolic.  

Among the performances, the actors who are onscreen longer, like Tom Waits, tend to be more memorable.  Zoe Kazan and Tim Blake Nelson were my other favorites, playing personalities at totally opposite ends of the spectrum from each other.  Many of the other roles are so brief, they amount to little more than cameos. Bigger stars like Liam Neeson are often nearly unrecognizable.  However, keep an eye out for Stephen Root, Tyne Daly, and Brendan Gleeson. Root has the best bit of physical comedy in the whole picture.

If I had my way, "Buster Scruggs" and the other stories would have each had a full movie to play out over, but there's a nice ephemerality to the film's anthology format that's very much in keeping with its themes and the wistfulness of any kind of examination of the western genre being made in 2018.  It's a strange film, and uneven in places, but I'm very glad that the Coens got to make it.

Monday, February 11, 2019

My Top Ten TV Props

To go along with my Top Ten Movie Props post from a few months ago, here's another list focusing on props from the television world that I'd love to acquire if I had the means.  

The Neighborhood of Make Believe Models - Even non-fans of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" are probably familiar with The Neighborhood of Make Believe, where all the fantasy characters lived.  However, I wonder how many people remember that Mr. Rogers kept these beautifully detailed models of the various locations from the Neighborhood in his kitchen, and would take them down occasionally to use as visual aids for discussions.  There were also little figurines of all the neighbors, though we didn't see them as often.

Troy's Cube - One of the '80s sitcoms that defined the '80s for me was "Out of This World," about a half-alien teenager who conversed with her off-planet alien dad, Troy (voiced by Burt Reynolds) through a cube-like communication device that looks like it had been assembled from translucent Lego pieces.  It would also glow in various colors, zap things, and get up to all sorts of other mischief. I'm a little surprised nobody ever made novelty lamps or phones patterned off this thing. Personally, I think it would make a great Bluetooth speaker.

Xena's Chakram - I spent many a weekend watching "Xena: Warrior Princess" in syndication.  As I mentioned in the previous props post, I'm not really one for weaponry. However, Xena's massively impractical signature weapon, the chakram, is one I'd make an exception for.  I mean, this thing is so clearly more decorative than functional, and every time she used it in a fight scene, it was clearly a lot of special effects and spiffy editing doing all the damage.  There's a yin-yang variant that's kind of neat, but I prefer the original.

The Eye of Odin and The Phoenix Gate - Yes, "Gargoyles" is an animated series, and these props never physically existed.  I'm including them here anyway. The two magical talismans play a big part on the show's mythology. The Eye of Odin enhances natural abilities or can just corrupt you and turn you into a monster.  The Phoenix Gate is essentially a mini TARDIS, allowing you to journey through time and space if you know the right spell. Way back in these '90s, at the dawn of the Internet, I confess I used images of both as profile pictures.  

The Gold Compact - Did you know there was a "Friday the 13th" series?  That had pretty much nothing to do with the movies? One episode from the first season featured a magic gold compact that would allow the user to control anyone that they hit with reflected light from the compact's mirror.  I spent years thinking that this episode was an obscure horror movie, before I finally tracked it down. I would never want to use the compact the way that we see in the show, but it's a neat looking item - and I could use a new mirror.

Giles' Transparencies - There's a lot of "Buffy the Vampire" paraphernalia to choose from: stakes, crosses, Buffy's Claddagh ring, Anya's amulet, and so on.  But what I keep fixating on is the transparencies that Giles uses to explain how to kill the Gentlemen in "Hush." They're hilarious and nostalgic, and geeky as anything.  I would totally frame them and hang them up on my wall, occasionally playing "Danse Macabre" to set the mood. Or I could just keep the projector setup and turn it on for special occasions.    
Star Trek Communicator Badges - I toyed with including Geordi's VISOR,  Picard's Flute, and Data's hologram of Tasha Yar. However, there's no object more ubiquitous and symbolic of the "Star Trek" franchise than the communicator badges.  Non-functional ones have been circulating for years, and there are still companies out there determined to make functional ones. Of all the different variants that are out there, I think the "Discovery" ones look the coolest, but I'd want a "Next Generation" one for old time's sake.      

The Midnight Sun Paintings - I had to have something from "The Twilight Zone" here, perhaps some busted spectacles, a certain stopwatch, or an alien cookbook.  I settled on the paintings from the episode "The Midnight Sun," where the Earth is sent in a death spiral toward the sun, and temperatures skyrocket. In order to achieve the melting effects, the original paintings were actually done in wax on hotplates.  I'd still love to get my hands on some replicas though, because those images are so evocative and memorable.

FBI badges - "The X-Files" was my first real geek show back in the '90s.  The I WANT TO BELIEVE poster would be fun, but the props that I most closely associate with the show are Mulder and Scully's FBI badges.  They're the most consistently recurring items through multiple episodes, and have the added bonus of not being too creepy, like the alien from "The Erlenmeyer Flask," or CSM's Morley's.  Either the wallet badges or the clip on badges would be great. And if I counted costume pieces as props, I'd also love one of Scully's coats.

Hand of the King Badge - Most of the iconic props in "Game of Thrones" come down to weaponry, which I'm not big on.  The jewelry's more to my taste, so bring on Dany's dragon torque, Sansa's poison necklace, and Littlefinger's bird sigil brooch.  The most ominous piece, and an important one in Westeros's power games, is the Hand of the King badge that comes into the possession of several characters during the course of the show.  Ned Stark, Tyrion and Tywin Lannister, and Qyburn have all worn it is various episodes.

Honorable mentions:  In addition to those items listed above, I'll add any of the handy Sonic Screwdrivers from "Doctor Who," the original chrome Talkie Toaster from "Red Dwarf," Sapsorrow's ring from "The Storyteller," Kramer's coffee table book form "Seinfeld," and the Shakespeare bust from the '60s "Batman" series.


Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Surprise "Favourite"

I've always held Yorgos Lanthimos's films at a distance, because I've always mentally put them into the category of shock cinema.  The extent of the onscreen brutality always struck me as a little distasteful and gratuitous, no matter how artfully done it was. That said, I've watched every one of his films since "Dogtooth," because Lanthimos is clearly talented, and willing to go to places that few other filmmakers care to venture.  And it's because of this that "The Favourite," his first film that he didn't write or originate the concept for, turned out to be something very special.

At first glance, "The Favourite" looks like a typical British costume drama.  In the early 18th century, Great Britain's Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is in poor health, but persists with waging an unpopular war against France.  This is largely due to the influence of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the Queen's close friend who runs the royal household and controls access to her.  Sarah's cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a poor relation down on her luck, arrives at the palace looking for work and is allowed to become a scullery maid. She works her way up through the ranks, thanks in part to her dealings with Sarah's political rival Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), and wins the attentions and affections of the Queen.

And in the hands of Lanthimos and his collaborators, the way this all plays out is absolutely vicious, hilarious, and tragic.  While the court of Queen Anne isn't as existentially horrific as some of the worlds Lanthimos has dreamed up for his other films, it's still a nasty sort of place, populated by awful people.  Every single character is prone to sudden bursts of physical and emotional violence. The dialogue is full of anachronistic vulgarities and blunt discussions of sex. Absurd entertainments, like a duck race and a scene where fruit is hurled at a cavorting naked man, are lovingly presented in slow motion.  The filmmaking also accentuates the satire - fisheye lenses and rapid pans make the grandly decorated sets look warped and the characters seem trapped.

The biggest departure form the Lanthimos milieu here is that the main characters are fully human rather than allegorical, and often quite sympathetic, in spite of their behavior.  All three lead actresses are phenomenal. Olivia Colman delivers the lynchpin performance as Queen Anne, a miserable, lonely woman who can't be certain that anyone genuinely cares for her.  Rachel Weisz's domineering Sarah is easy to hate, until you realize that in spite of her cruelty and ambition, she's the most honest and principled of the lot. Finally, Abigail's transformation from perpetual victim into power player gives Emma Stone the opportunity to deliver some of the best comedy of her career.  The male supporting characters are also a lot of fun, particularly Nicholas Hoult being a magnificent rat bastard.

I imagine that some of the fans of the director's previous films might see "The Favourite" as watered down Lanthimos, but I find it easily his most mature and watchable picture to date.  All of his usual hallmarks are here, but they're tempered by being put in the service of telling what is often a very intimate and emotionally grounded story. The power struggle between Sarah and Abigail is handled with care, and the depiction of poor Queen Anne is instantly iconic.  It's great to see Lanthimos is capable of doing this kind of subtler character drama and being more collaborative with other creatives. At the same time it's a treat to see so many of the old costume drama tropes livened up with so much venom.

I find it very funny that this year's awards season has gone so pear-shaped, and so many of the other pictures have disappointed, that "The Favourite" is somehow a major front-runner in the Oscar race and the least controversial.  The actresses are very deserving, especially Olivia Colman, but this is still a dark, weird movie with a bawdy streak and a wicked sense of humor - not your usual prestige pic by a long shot. I hope Yorgos Lanthimos keeps going in this direction and applies his talents to other kinds of stories - I'd love to see him tackle a political comedy next.        

Thursday, February 7, 2019

A Paranoid "Homecoming"

There's a lot that's unusual about Amazon's psychological thriller "Homecoming."  It's a ten episode limited series, adapted by Sam Esmail from an "experimental fiction" podcast (nee radio drama), released in 2017. Each installment is roughly half an hour in length, and features a high powered cast, including Julia Roberts as the lead, Bobby Cannavale, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and Sissy Spacek.  The original writers of the podcast, Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, are heavily involved in the adaptation, and have writing credits on most of the episodes. However, the most important creative force at work here is director Sam Esmail.

"Homecoming" follows Heidi Bergman (Roberts), who works as a counselor for the Homecoming program, which helps to transition returning soldiers back into civilian life.  It also follows Bergman some years later, living with her mother and working as a waitress. She's approached by a Department of Defense auditor, Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), who is investigating Homecoming and a complaint involving one of the soldiers in the program, Walter Cruz (Stephan James).  What happened at Homecoming and how much did Heidi know? And where is Walter? Other characters include Heidi's boss at Homecoming, Colin Belfast (Cannavale), Heidi's mother Ellen (Spacek), Walter's mother Gloria (Jean-Baptiste) and Audrey (Hong Chau), the receptionist at Homecoming's sinister parent company, Geist.  

When you look at "Homecoming" from a narrative level, it's actually quite straightforward and the answers are all telegraphed far in advance.  However, it's the presentation that turns it into a wonderful exercise in suspense. Esmail takes his cues from the political thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s, and the series is full of slow zooms and pans, ominous music (often taken from other existing soundtracks), and god's-eye overhead shots.  There's a calculated exactness to the art direction and the cinematography that summons up gobs of Kubrickian menace. The Homecoming center in Heidi's past is being painstaking marketed as a helpful, positive experience, and all the while you know there's shady business going on. The show never hides this, but the stresses that the secrecy puts on everyone involved in the conspiracy leads to a wonderfully uneasy, paranoid atmosphere.

I like how purposefully the show's structure is used in the storytelling.  Half-hour dramas are fairly rare, and Esmail uses that to his advantage. Each episode ends with a long shot, sometimes of a character doing something mundane, or simply lingering on picturesque scenery as the credits start rolling out.  This gives viewers a minute or two at the end of the episode to reflect and absorb what just happened, and sometimes to amplify feelings of disturbance or resignation. Often episodes left me wanting more, and more likely to want to keep going on to the next episode.  I expect most viewers will watch several installments together the way that I did on Amazon Prime. There's also an after credits sequence after the finale, my favorite of the year, that nicely sets up a second season.

The performances contribute significantly to the show's effectiveness.  Julia Roberts is engaging as Heidi, deftly keeping the audience in the dark as to what she knows at certain points in the story, and what her motivations are. However, it's Bobby Cannavale as her awful, blowhard boss who is my favorite of the cast.  He's over-the-top-terrible, but also clearly vulnerable in the face of far scarier corporate forces at Geist. When he gets trapped in the snares of his own making, it's so much fun to watch him squirm. Stephan James' Walter is the one totally guileless player in the whole affair, and he's such a charismatic, likeable presence.  Several of the smaller supporting turns are also excellent, but saying too much about them would be treading in spoiler territory.

I'm curious about the podcast version of "Homecoming," which features an entirely different but equally impressive cast of actors  However, without Sam Esmail's contributions, I don't think it would have the same appeal for me. There are plenty of conspiracy shows out there, including Esmail's "Mr. Robot," but few that have achieved the same level of stylish cinematic entertainment.  There are a few great moments in "Homecoming" that took me completely by surprise in the best way, even though I knew they were coming. And that's a hard thing to achieve.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

My Top Ten Films of 1981

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Raiders of the Lost Ark - I'm too young to remember the adventure serials of the 1930s that "Raiders" was based on, but I understand the spirit and the appeal of them, thanks to "Raiders."  Steven Spielberg and George Lucas combined forces to pay tribute to the cinema of their youths, resulting in one of the greatest pieces of pure entertainment ever made. The level of filmmaking craft remains astonishing, and it was all in service of making sure the audience had a roaring good time.  And in Indiana Jones, they had their iconic American adventurer, a rough-and-tumble reluctant hero with a heart of gold.

Thief - Michael Mann's debut film is a neo-noir awash in neon lights, featuring an unusual degree of polish and self-assuredness.  Clearly, his sensibilities as a director were already well established, with many of his usual cinematic trademarks on display. Here he creates an immersive nocturnal world to serve as the backdrop to the story of James Caan's titular professional burglar, a charismatic character who undergoes a bitter journey of self-discovery.  It's violent, thrilling, and utterly uncompromising, with the added bonus of showcasing a fairly realistic heist scenario, one I've never seen anything like since.

Possession - There are some films that are built around great performances, but you don't often see ones that are so utterly dominated by them the way that "Possession" is by Isabelle Adjani's jawdropping turn as a woman undergoing a terrible mental and emotional collapse.  The nightmarish narrative is difficult to parse, but director Andrzej Żuławski does a fantastic job of keeping the mood strange and steadily ratcheting up the tension. There are plenty of horrors to be found, but the most memorable are totally due to Adjani's terrifying, seemingly out-of-control fits of violence and madness.    

Blow Out - One of Brian De Palma's most chilling films is this psychological thriller about a sound engineer man who gets caught up in a murder investigation and cover-up.  The filmmaking is showy, but executed with care, creating some incredibly visceral scenes of suspense and action. Though based on the Antonioni film "Blowup," De Palma's work here is more political, more cynical, and ultimately more impactful.  This is one of the few De Palma films I enjoy unreservedly because it's unusually straightforward and serious for him, and there are elements of self-criticism that are good to see.

Feherlofia - Marcell Jankovics's "Feherlofia," or "Son of the White Mare," is a traditionally animated Hungarian fantasy film based on several stories from Central European mythology.  It's a vibrant, beautiful feature that uses visual designs that are very unique, clearly not derivative of any of the other popular styles of animation of the time. The use of psychedelic colors, abstracted forms, minimalist backgrounds, and circular motions are especially eye-catching.  The film's production was clearly a labor of love, and it remains one of the high water marks of Eastern European animation.

Blood Wedding - This is the first film in Carlos Saura's "Flamenco Trilogy," where each story is told through elaborately choreographed flamenco style dance performances.  The theatrical nature of this interpretation is emphasized, and we begin by watching the members of the dance troupe arrive, warm up, and put on costumes and makeup. When the performance begins in earnest, it's thoroughly entrancing.  Saura allows little to distract from the powerful physicality of the dancers, who deliver performances that equal the expressiveness and emotion of any traditional actor.

Pennies From Heaven - One of the most subversive and ambitious musical films ever made.  The conceit of a miserable Great Depression era tragedy being juxtaposed with the lighthearted musical numbers common of that era would be daring on its own.  However, the melodrama is memorably poignant, and the ending unusually harrowing. And those numbers are staged so elaborately, and performed with such gusto by Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and the other performers, the film's criticisms of the characters' embrace of escapism, self-delusion, and fantasy end up hitting that much harder.  

Reds - Is it possible that a film about a prominent American Communist should have won so much acclaim in 1981?  Well, this was the era when Warren Beatty could do no wrong, and his approach to "Reds" was to make it an epic love story between the activist John Reed and his fellow journalist Louise Bryant, played by Diane Keaton.  I think the trick is that "Reds" feels so personal, a story about personalities rather than politics, about nostalgia for a more innocent bygone era. I especially enjoy the framing device, where anecdotes about the couple are shared by the real people who knew them.    

Time Bandits - I've grown to appreciate Terry Gilliam's weird little fantasy adventure more over time.  When I was younger, I found it a little too nasty and cynical for my taste. Now that I'm older, the social satire and the digs at historical figures are much more enjoyable.  I adore David Warner's exasperated take on Evil, the ridiculous dwarves, and the careless Supreme Being. There's a lovely chaos to the whole film, where the characters bounce from historical scenes to fantasy worlds to mythological worlds to a rollicking grand finale that seems to take place in a realm of pure imagination.  

Das Boot - I'll never be able to hear "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" without thinking of the crew of the U-96.  Wolfgang Peterson made the ultimate submarine movie, tracing the fortunes of a German U-boat and her crew during WWII.  A technical marvel with its complicated battle scenes, claustrophobic enclosed spaces, and swooping camera, it's also an excellent adventure film.  Few big-budget productions were ever made about WWII combat from the German point of view, for obvious reasons, but "Das Boot" does such a good job of humanizing the Germans, it's very hard not to root for them.  

Sunday, February 3, 2019

"Sorry to Bother You" Needs No Apology

There is a lot to admire about Boots Riley's "Sorry to Bother You." It is a pointedly political film that is unabashedly critical of capitalism, American race-relations, and the modern culture of excess. It is bursting with big ideas, from the African-American main character practicing code-switching by literally using a white person's voice, to the leading lady building her artistic career on the commodification of political protest, to the media being complicit maintaining a society built on degradation and wage-slavery. The quasi-surreal style is also fantastic, a mix of Michel Gondry's whimsical DIY aesthetic and Spike Lee's vibrant polemicism.

The story follows Cassius "Cash" Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a struggling Oakland resident who gets a position as a telemarketer for the corrupt RegalView company. Cash turns out to be great at the job, and faces the possibility of real financial success and upward mobility for the first time in his life. However, his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and his friends Sal (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steve Yeung) are spearheading protests aimed at unionizing RegalView. Tensions mount as Cash becomes more and more successful selling out, and gets involved with another nightmare company, WorryFree, that is doing some very unethical things with its workforce.

Yet for all the ambition and all the willingness to tackle these big, important topics, parts of the movie simply didn't work for me. I have no complaints about the first two thirds of the film, where Cash's story is told through a lot of these exaggerated, cartoonish devices, and full of pointed moments of social commentary. I love that David Cross and Patton Oswalt were recruited to play the "white voices" of black characters. I love Detroit's comically large earrings displaying protest slogans, and the godawful snippets of mass media. There are two deeply uncomfortable scenes - one where Cash is obliged to play rapper at a party, and another where Detroit presents a disturbing performance art piece - that are worth the price of admission by themselves.

The whole ensemble is great. Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, and Steve Yeun are actors who have spent most of their careers in supporting roles, and it was a treat to see them finally get more sizable, interesting parts to show what they're capable of. Stanfield in particular is so good at getting across Cash's internal discomfort and anxiety in the face of situations he knows are awful, but is willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Thompson has never been more off the wall or more fascinating to watch. I wish her subplot, like so many other parts of the film, could have been developed more. Armie Hammer and Danny Glover also pop up in small but important roles, deployed perfectly.

Where things really go awry is in the third act, where we move from a world full of exaggerated elements to some flat-out fantasy. And I honestly think that this could have worked if the execution of the really outlandish stuff were better, or if the scope of the story had gotten bigger as it went along. Instead, it feels like an entirely new storyline from a very different movie got stuffed into the last thirty minutes of "Sorry to Bother You," and nobody could figure out how to make it work. This feels like a case of a director biting off more than he could chew, putting every idea he had into a movie where there was no way it was all going to fit, and that he didn't have the budget or experience to do it justice.

In a way, that's a wonderful thing. Few films display this kind of unbridled commitment to creative experimentation nowadays. However, I feel the wilder elements unfortunately did end up undercutting some of the film's messages in the end. People didn't come out of screenings talking about its politics, unlike "Blindspotting" and "Blackkklansman." Still, for the most part this is a great first feature from a monstrously talented director, and I have no doubt that he'll be back for more. And with any luck, he'll have figured out how to focus a little better next time.


Friday, February 1, 2019

"Crazy Rich Asians" is an Event

This is the big one.  The first contemporary studio film with a fully Asian and Asian-American cast in twenty-five years.  The film that's aiming to prove that Asians can be leading men and women, capable of generating plenty of heat at the box office.  The film that's made an instant star out of Henry Golding, and boosted the profiles of several other actors, including Constance Wu and Awkwafina.  The publicity blitz and the support from the Asian-American community have been a wonderfully encouraging thing to witness. Clearly, the film has been a rousing success in all the ways that matter to Hollywood and all the talent involved.

So, I'd have been supportive of "Crazy Rich Asians" solely out of Asian-American solidarity, but it's nice that the film is actually pretty good.  What's gotten a little lost in the midst of all the fuss is that it is an unusually successful romantic-comedy at a time when romantic-comedies have lost some luster.  Constance Wu plays an NYU professor, Rachel Chu, who is being courted by a Singaporean native, Nick Young (Henry Golding), and he wants to take her home to meet his family.  It's soon revealed that Nick is the scion of the powerful and immensely wealthy Young family, who are real estate moguls in Singapore. Rachel has to contend with jealous exes, gossipy socialites, and Nick's disapproving mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), while attending a lavish event wedding.

Recent romantic comedies have been struggling to modernize, to embrace modern relationships and relationship problems.  "Crazy Rich Asians" takes the opposite tack and is actually quite old fashioned in construction. Class differences, difficult families, and the obligations of being upper crust separate our lovebirds, and they prove to be considerable obstacles.  There's also the added wrinkle of Rachel being an Asian-American, whose independence clashes with the more traditional Chinese values of filial piety represented by Eleanor. Setting the film in Singapore also puts it in a very distinct cultural context, one that I was mostly unfamiliar with.  Like Rachel, I'm Chinese-American, and recognized a lot of the more general customs and language tics. The Singaporean social scene and class distinctions, however, were completely foreign to me. Rachel has a college gal-pal, for instance, named Peik Lin (Awkwafina), who is part of the nouveau riche, and her lovably gaudy family is the source of a lot of comic relief.

Understandably, there's a lot of hand-holding here for non-Asian audience members.  Nearly all the younger members of the cast speak with British or American accents, and Western indicators of wealth, like high end fashion and sports cars, are everywhere.  However, director John Chu and company prove very committed to putting as much Asian culture onscreen as possible. Rachel is taken on a whirlwind tour of Singapore - food stalls, tropical beaches, and tons of stunning real estate.  Even the bustling airport gets compliments. We also sit in on dumpling wrapping sessions, tan hua viewing parties, and a very intense game of mahjong. John Chu is at his best when he's orchestrating spectacle, and the big wedding between Nick's best friend Colin (Chris Pang) and his fiancee Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno) presents plenty of opportunity for memorable, colorful visuals.  The wedding ceremony in particular is over the top in the best way.

When you take away all the glitz, however, "Crazy Rich Asians" struck me as a lot of good pieces of a film that are a little haphazardly assembled.  Michelle Yeoh is great. Awkwafina is great. I loved the "rainbow sheep" of the family, Oliver, played by Nico Santos. However, as much as I like Wu and Golding as performers, their characters never stop being a little flat, and their relationship is very bland and generic.  You can tell there was a lot cut out from the book (which I haven't read), in an effort to make it more accessible. There's also a subplot with Nick's cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her marriage troubles that feels awfully tacked on. Everything is executed with plenty of enthusiasm and care, but occasionally you have an awkward scene, like Rachel and NIck regrouping after the bachelorette party, that lands with a thud.  

Ultimately, my complaints are pretty minor, and made with the expectation that John Chu and his team will have the opportunity to do better the next time around.  I expect a "Crazy Rich Asian New Year" is just around the corner, and hope that we'll get to see even more Asian talent take center stage. The movie may be a little frothy for my tastes, but I recognize it's an important stepping stone to better things.